The war in Afghanistan has taken a bizarre turn. Afghan President Hamid Karzai, under foreign pressure to clean up corruption in his government, has apparently warned that he might just side with the Taliban instead. Meanwhile, down south major NATO combat operations continue to target Taliban strongholds. In the east, stretched-thin NATO troops struggle to build grassroots governance and security without much support from Karzai’s regime. Zach Rosenberg, War Is Boring’s youngest correspondent, heads into this morass to observe U.S. counter-insurgency operations up-close.
by ZACH ROSENBERG
Sidiqua, 18 years old, cries gently as she talks about her life. At the age of three, Hezb-i-Islami rocketed her home while assaulting Kabul; the first rocket put a piece of shrapnel in her back that the local hospital had no capacity to remove. The second killed her mother, brothers and aunt. Her father, bearing permanent mental scars, cannot bear the pain of seeing her; though he has a home in Kabul, she is not allowed inside it and he often sleeps in the streets.
Without family, a crucial part of Afghan social life, Sidiqua is adrift. She is unemployed and broke. The government, which gives her 8,000 Afghanis a year — about $160, well below the cost of living — denied her request for land, Sidiqua says, because she is a woman and cannot build a house. To survive, she moves between the houses of her neighbors. “I need my mother,” she weeps, “where is my mother now?”
At an NGO-organized “Victim’s Jirga” in a Kabul hotel on Sunday, Afghans from all over the country gathered to share their grief and voice their hopes for the future. After speaking in panels organized by conflict period — the civil war, the Taliban era, and the current era — the victims were split into eight working groups to debate questions about the past and the future.
The Victim’s Jirga comes in advance of the widely-anticipated Peace Jirga, from which many hope a comprehensive reconciliation plan will emerge. Afghan President Hamid Karzai has frequently stated that the only end to the current conflict will come through negotiation, a position supported by U.S. President Barak Obama and other NATO heads of state. Negotiations have already occurred with at least one major figure in the insurgency, Hezb-i-Islami commander Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.
Sidiqua, whose family was killed by Hekmatyar’s militia, said she would not forgive Hekmatyar or accept any outcome in which he would be allowed back into Afghanistan. Other Jirga attendees who were tortured or saw their families killed by Hekmatyar and other insurgent leaders hold varying opinions on forgiving the past in exchange for future peace. But many victims face a more immediate problem: Karzai’s wholehearted acceptance of warlords means that many abusers are members of the Afghan government.
One such victim is Abdul Halim Aziz, a laborer from the Rustaq district of Takhar Province. In 1989, he says, a local warlord named Perankol Sie massacred 56 people, nine of whom were members of his family. Aziz took his family and fled until Karzai came into power, when Sie, now a parliamentarian, sent Aziz a note saying that he could return home without fear. Aziz did so. In 2006, Aziz says, Sie kidnapped two of his sons, ages six and eight, from their school, killed them and dumped their bodies in a nearby river.
When Aziz brought more than 100 villagers to Kabul to confront Sie, he was granted an audience with Karzai, who, according to Aziz, told him that he should forget the killings because he was young and could have more children. Though Karzai then issued a proclamation for a parliamentary hearing, Aziz was not allowed into parliament and the issue was left to stagnate.
“I have no expectation from the government of Afghanistan, the parliament or anyone. Whoever is in power, they are always corrupt, they are money hungry, they are power hungry,” says Aziz through a translator. Aziz says his only wishes are to move his family to safety outside of Afghanistan and push the international community to act. He looks tired as he says this; his story is documented and compelling, and he has already been interviewed several times today.
The victims are divided into eight groups of perhaps ten victims each to debate three central questions — how to remember the past, how to achieve peace and the nature of justice. Each group sent a representative up front to explain their answers, written on large sheets of butcher paper.
“By the name of Allah, I am Ahmed Shah. I am a victim of war.” Shah, wearing a traditional salwar kamiz, had written his group’s points out with the hook on his right hand. His left arm has neither a hand nor a hook. A man behind him held the microphone to his mouth. “If the victim’s views are not considered,” Shah says, “we will not have true peace in Afghanistan.”
Though the crowd at the Jirga was self-selecting, their suffering is by no means rare. After 30 years of war and brutal oppression, nearly everyone in Afghanistan has horrific stories. If they have not lost family and friends, been tortured, witnessed horrific violence, killed people — or all three — then they are close to someone who has. In a number of cases, the perpetrators at whose hands they suffered are members of the current government.
So it is not surprising that though the individual working groups differ on the exact role of government in addressing their concerns, all eight groups unanimously demand that the government purge itself of human rights violators. In doing so, the victims are seeking justice for the atrocities committed and insurance that they will never happen again.
Attempts to remove powerful human rights violators from government would, first, remove the leaders of large swaths of government, two, potentially destabilize the government. That the victims seem willing to pay the associated costs might suggest, first, that they are ignorant of the costs, though this is unlikely given their experiences; second, that their desire for justice or hopes for the future cause them to downplay the costs; third, that the current situation is not so unbearable that the costs outweigh the benefits. The desire for justice is likely; as noted earlier, this is a self-selecting group that has suffered heavily, that is willing to trust civil society and tweak the nose of both the Taliban and the government by speaking openly against both parties.
What particularly interests me is the third possibility, that they do not represent particularly extreme views and are willing to pay the costs of greater instability in exchange for greater potential stability down the road. This suggests that they find the current tenuous security situation relatively bearable, and are more concerned with government malfeasance than the Taliban insurgency.
As Reuters notes, Jirga attendees are divided as to whether or not to talk with the Taliban. If victims of violence are accorded a special voice in the upcoming Peace Jirga, it is unclear how their representatives will weigh in on that issue.
Though the Peace Jirga is not tasked to deliver justice, it is a question that will undoubtedly weigh heavily on attendees: if achieving peace comes at the cost of justice, or vice versa, which is the preferred outcome?